Fear will keep the local churches in line

No Church Left Behind

The Tarkin Doctrine was the imperial policy that lead to the creation of the Death Star in Star Wars. Tarkin, the highest-ranking member of the Empire, was charged with subjugating an entire galaxy under its iron grip. Massive direct-military control of an entire galaxy would be decades away from fruition so a strategy was needed in the meantime. Tarkin believed that the fear of force was more powerful than force itself: “Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.” Thus, the Death Star would only have to use force to blow up a planet once (Alderaan) to cause the rest of the galaxy to fall in line out of fear.

Stay with me, but this “fear of force” philosophy is alive and well in the church today as it struggles with what to do with its power in a shifting religious landscape.

There are varied degrees of power in mandating changes in the local churches in a denominational system. The more congregational, the more power is at the local church level. The more connectional, the more power is placed at the meta-church level. For example, bishops assign pastors in a connectional system whereas churches choose pastors in a congregational system.

To the point, I’m struck by how much of the call for reform in the UMC revolve around utilizing fear and consequences in our connectional system.

In the Called to Action report, while statistics and indicators of decline evoke fear and uncertainty, they are realities we have to deal with. I’m not talking about calls for episcopal censure or elimination of guaranteed appointments. While those involve fear, their express purpose is not to evoke fear but accountability.

But fear of reciprocity is celebrated and deployed as a strategy to effect change. For instance, when talking about moving funding from effective programs

Develop and implement comprehensive strategic initiatives that identify and then redeploy underperforming assets (real estate, invested reserves) and combine with allocations of annual revenue in order to invest in the places demonstrating and fostering vitality

CTA report, 26

This is what I’ve called “No Church Left Behind” (ala No Child Left Behind) where funds from under-performing areas are taken away and given to successful areas. As the CTA report says multiple times it is good that the church “celebrates success” but the flipside is that “abandons failure.” In other words, while it makes fiscal sense to redeploy assets, it abandons entire mission fields and programs and people instead of securing more funding to make programs more effective.

While certainly there are programs that need to be abandoned, ask any teacher or principal or superintendent if fear is a motivating factor in the school systems these days and you’ll understand why I see fear as a motivating factor in this program reshuffling in the UMC. And I worry about secular values of sheerly objective assessments creeping their way into subjective values of the Church. Like Jesus in Mark 14 celebrating the woman who “wasted” a bottle of perfume on his feet while others criticized the waste of money, we also ought to be reflective when our policies value objective criteria rather than extravagant love.

But even more disturbing is when they are talking about measures such as revoking health insurance of clergy. The recent Sustainability Advisory Group’s report (which provided material support for the CTA report) blatantly celebrates the role of fear. Here they are talking about sharing “best practices” across conference boundaries:

Ideas range from the simple,cost effective use of OCR (optical character/check readers) for conference treasurers, to strict conference policies requiring district funds to cover the shortfall in payments for all clergy benefits, to policies that terminate health benefits if a church does not pay the premiums. While this latter policy may seem extreme, experience has shown that this only happens once, after which conference finances improve significantly.

SAG report, 16

In keeping with the theme of this post, a sacrifice of Rev. Alderaan will bring the rest of the local churches in line.  Once people hear about another clergy’s termination of benefits, they will change their habits as well. The Tarkin Doctrine in effect.

In closing, there is a difference between being fearful of the future of the church (which many faithful people including me are) and adopting strategies that utilize fear.   A twitter comment by Taylor Burton-Edwards today seems to ask a similar question that I am asking:

Are churches and denominations presenting negative emotional motivators to deal with complex issues?


How can we be the Body of Christ when we encourage nervous sweat rather than soaring hearts?


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  1. says

    I continue to wonder why we don’t have any reports looking at the positive things happening in the UMC–and then adjusting structures/foci to accommodate those things–rather than focusing on what is “wrong” and using the language of crisis to tell us that we’ve got to approve these recommendations or else!

  2. says

    I concur. Being in a zero-sum game in my annual conference, I am held accountable for when my conference-funded minstry does not live up to expectations, and that money is given to other, more viable areas (new church starts). Fear doesn’t keep me in line (I’m an unexpected rule-flouter) but it has created an almost-paralyzing anxiety which cripples those of us who are in challenging mission fields or working to redeploy antiquated/dysfunctional institutions, or strugging to give excellent leadership.

    The other point I would make regards connectional systems: hopefully the tension is between congregational and diocesan/hierarchical, and connectional occupies the middle ground. I found Tom Frank’s book Polity, Practice, and Mission of the United Methodist Church helpful in this regard. In the introduction, Frank also rejects fearmongering as a strategem for institutional reform. Good stuff. Thanks, Jeremy.

  3. says

    “How can we be the Body of Christ when we encourage nervous sweat rather than soaring hearts?”

    Very profound observation, Jeremy, one I agree with 100%. Now that the serious stuff is out of the way, you are the only pastor I’ve ever seen use Star Wars references to make a point. Which is cool, even if it does bring other questions.

  4. Creed Pogue says

    When the people who complain about accountability stop demanding that they be paid in U.S. currency, then I might have some more sympathy for their perspective. Instead, it sounds like the spoiled child who demands everything and does nothing.

    We do have a problem with a number of churches lacking in resources or “wallet.” However, we have far, far more that lack in priorities or “will.” Who is supposed to pay the health insurance premiums for those churches that can but choose to pay later or not at all (for example)???

    There is a major difference between the Conference as a group designating some churches as “missional” and exempting them from apportionments and billings and churches making that decision on their own while expecting everyone else to make up the difference.

    Unfortunately, we have come to a point where most Conferences are operating that way regarding their general church apportionments as well.

  5. says

    If Vader is threatening clergy lives (or livelihoods) shouldn’t Vader also give authority to clergy to threaten and terminate membership? Otherwise isn’t Vader just making clergy sacrificial lambs, effectively binding their arms and asking them to make him a sandwich, then choking them out when the sandwich doesn’t appear? If clergy have higher accountability, they need more authority to remove laity, and restructure their local congregations where the structure is part of the problem. Holding pastors accountable for church decline, but not giving them the tools to change the church, sort of feels like scapegoating.

    • says

      Nathan, I tend to be interested in this line of thinking.

      I don’t really have a problem with evaluating my (and my church’s) progress with numbers. I think asking about the number of small groups and the number of people involved in mission is a good question.

      Here’s my issue: If I am going to be personally evaluated on my church’s performance, can I evaluate each member personally, making a cork-board sign and giving each member a star for every activity I approve: One star for being in a covenantal small group, one star for doing community service, one star for coming to worship, one star for giving money, one star for bringing a friend to worship, etc.

      My church doesn’t always seem to want me to have as much power as I already do. Should I just say, “too bad”? I’ll use my death star to kick out a trouble-maker, and then everyone else might fall in line!

      In other words, I think it’s complicated how we are evaluating stuff.

      In some ways, I like naming our fears and facing them head on. Let’s not hide from the fact that my congregation could close in a mere few months! Ultimately, I hope that our REAL call-to-action will be to radically change the way we do church, not come up with ways to prop up the old system. In the future, I plan to be a part of a vital church that is more like an intentional community, with little-to-no paid staff. I don’t see professional Christianity as the future of authentic Christianity.

  6. Ron McDougald says

    As I remember it those who opposed the Empire were called “rebels” and they had “bases” from which to launch their own ‘actions’ (Perhaps this is the model for those threatened)…When there is authority taken without accountability it leads to ‘Bishop’ or even ‘Pastor’ Vaders…John Wesley who exercised considerable authority over his preachers would join the rebels if he could see the current level of force used by Bishops, the Conference etc over the lives of pastors and congregations…No one is holding Bishops by the the throat when they make statements, or sign letters that are in direct violation of the Discipline of the church.


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